A Branch of Frangipani–a stage director prepares Willy Holtzman’s play, The First Mrs. Rochester

Jean Rhys
wide sargasso sea

Willy Holtzman’s play The First Mrs Rochester is a witty and sometimes gritty depiction of author Jean Rhys and the inspiration for her acclaimed novel, The Wide Sargasso Sea. Rhys was thought to be dead until discovered by an actress Selma Vaz Dias , who is hoping to revive her career. Vaz Dias manages to ferret out Rhys’s whereabouts and discovers the seventy-something author in shambles, with an unfinished novel in her possession that will become a literary masterpiece. It is an unlikely meeting of two witty and determined older women, both of whom share the anxiety of cultural displacement.

The First Mrs Rochester evinces the wit, ambivalence, and depth of character of Jean Rhys. We are all foreigners.

This year’s Spoken Word performance focuses on the director’s journey – of process, moving into many points of detail and ultimately, telling an intimate story about finding common ground with Rhys and Bronte.

Here is no looking glass here and I don’t know what I am like now.

The Wide Sargasso Sea, the woman in the attic, the first Mrs. Rochester

I’m finding things and I’m asking questions, and in that pursuit, I always come back to how much I don’t know. In many ways, we can only know ourselves, but only if we are at liberty to do so. It is on that premise that II begin my journey – through empathy, while exposing the cruel and ignorant side of privilege. I am interested in women, in the disenfranchisement or subjugation of cultural identity; I am interested in author Jean Rhys as she floats in all the unjust in-betweens as she conceives her novel. She is Bertha from Jane Eyre, she is Antoinette from The Wide Sargasso Sea. Both of these women peer into a fractured mirror, a broken sense of self as a larger metaphor for a broken world.

My thanks to the late Dr. Roi Kwabena for use of his song, Deep Obeah, and to Dr. Maximilian Forte at the University of Concordia for his kind sharing of vital insights.

Stephanie Vlahos